Recommending a First Motorcycle

Twin Cylinder Motorcycle

100 Cubic inch V-Twin as a first bike? Not a good idea for everyone.

1) What would you recommend as a “first” motorcycle for a newbie?

2) With a gazillion bikes to choose from, how would you advise a friend, new to the world of motorcycling, on which bike to purchase?

3) Should it be a used bike or a new one?

You and I will likely agree on this advice: “Do not buy the biggest and/or fastest bike available.”

OK. That’s obvious. Yet, according to an employee at my local motorcycle dealership, new buyers routinely purchase motorcycles they are not ready to handle. (And this is a LARGE dealership).

I’ve been at that same dealer when a guy bought a big, expensive bike, having never ridden before, and dropped it before he got 20 yards, breaking a lever and turn signal and causing other minor damage. (The rider was unscathed – just embarrassed). I asked one of the mechanics about it and he said, “It happens all the time” and repeated several recent examples of the same.

It’s not unthinkable that at least some of these new riders asked some rider friends about what they would recommend. What did those friends suggest?

Stated simply: If you are not an experienced rider, don’t buy a hyper-powered Suzuki Hayabusa, or Kawasaki ZX14. Don’t get a full-tourer, such as Honda Goldwing or BMW LT. Don’t buy any Harley Davidson bigger than a Sportster as your first bike. Do not purchase a sport-touring bike, such as a BMW RT or BMW GT, Kawasaki Concours14, Honda ST1300, or Yamaha FJR1300 as your first ride.

Would you advise a new rider to purchase a middle-weight bike?

Opinions diverge here.

“Middle-weight” still includes a significant variety of high-performance sport bikes, especially in the neighborhood of 600cc to 750cc.

A mid-weight could include an 883cc Sportster, which is “small” in the Harley Davidson family.

High-performance sportbike as first motorcycle?  Might not end well.

High-performance sportbike as first motorcycle? Might not end well.

The supporting side of the argument for starting a new rider on a mid-sized bike is that once you get through your initial learning curve, you’ll be able to “grow into” the bike instead of buying another one. The idea is that there is an economical advantage to getting a bigger bike (midsize) than a new rider may be able to readily handle while he is learning to ride.

My view is more conservative: I recommend that men and women purchase a “small” bike as their first machine (250cc or smaller).

• Smaller bikes are easier to lift back up if you drop it when you fail to set down your side stand correctly, or if you lose your footing in some loose gravel at a stop sign.

• Smaller bikes are easier to handle and are more forgiving: Larger and more powerful bikes demand greater precision, skill, and smoothness to keep them controlled.

• Insurance costs are less for smaller bikes.

• There’s a fuel economy advantage with a small bike, too, although that will not be relevant to all riders. (Many riders would continue their bike passion even if fuel was more costly for a motorbike than a car).


This is not an exhaustive list of practical first bikes for new riders, but they do represent the concepts in this article:

  • Honda Rebel 250 (Cruiser)
  • Honda Nighthawk 250 (Standard)
  • Honda CRF230L (Dual Purpose)
  • Kawasaki KLX250S (Dual Purpose)
  • Kawasaki Ninja 250R (Sport)
  • Kawasaki Eliminator 125 (Cruiser)
  • Suzuki GZ250 (Standard)
  • Suzuki DR200SE (Dual Purpose)
  • Yamaha WR250X (Dual Purpose)
  • Yamaha WR250R (Dual Purpose)
  • Yamaha XT250 (Dual Purpose)
  • Yamaha V Star 250 (Cruiser)

Although not everyone I recommend such bikes to will follow through and buy a small bike (they’ll get a bigger one), I’m of the thinking that a gradient approach to learning and gaining experience will pay off in greater longer-term enjoyment and safety.

What about buying a used or new bike as a first motorcycle purchase? Click here.

167 thoughts on “Recommending a First Motorcycle

  • I like the European system, which starts a new motorcyclist on a small cc bike (250cc max) then take a riding proficiency to upgrade to a 450-500cc bike. After a reasonable time (1 year) then upgrade to a 750cc with a proficiency test and so on. Sure the financial outlay would be more, but just think of the lives it would save. I’d rather pay up front rather than have a 16 year old kid out on summer holidays wrap him/her self around the proverbial telephone pole causing insurance rates to skyrocket for us all, also not to mention the saving of their young lives. 130 lb kids versus 1000 lbs of crotch rocket. My $.02…..Jim

  • If only we were like the European’s, with a tiered licence system where this would not be a problem.

    As having been an MSF RiderCoach going on 11 years, and a rider for nearly 30 I would strongly recommend to anyone interested to A) get the style of bike they intend to ride that has their interest. B) Buy Used (but take a mechanically knowledgeable friend or have it given the once over by a reputable shop) and C) < 500 CC (Based on person size / strength etc.)

    My reasons are as follows:

    A)Why buy a learner in the style you eventually want? If you just buy a bike as a learner that is not the style you want, you will likely try to just get to the point where you feel you are competent (Hey, i didnt drop it this time!) and not actually give yourself enough time to build muscle memory and good habits / skills.

    B) Used, for me this is simple – motorcycles depreciate so much when they are initially sold, why not take advantage of a gently used / loved deal that will likely get at least a few more minor (hopefully) dings while you are learning. – you also wont be so worried about scratching it or dropping it for the sake of that "new bike look". You also will save significant money over new, allowing you more resources to get the right gear and to ensure its properly services.

    C) Under 500 CC? Well for me this is exactly as you reasoned in the initial post. Motorcycles that are 125 have the same basic mechanics/physics as larger bikes, but are alot more forgiving. Think about the new rider who just hit a bump and rolled on that throttle unexpectedly. Id rather it be a situation where the bike sped up a little perhaps, not pulled a wheelie into a ditch yah know.

    Love the site / blog keep up the good work!

  • My first and “training” bike was a two stroke Yamaha DT125. I got my license on this bike and also loaned it out to friends who needed a bike that they could pass the New York license test on. I rode the hell out of this bike, because it was an enduro I was both on road and off, up and down staircases, through fields, down highways, I learned to u-turn, figure 8,drop and pick up. I loved that little bike. 40 years later, after 3 Gold Wings, 2 Ventures, an a couple of smaller bikes, I still think of how much fun that 125 was. My advise to any new rider is to start small and gradually go bigger, getting new bikes along the way is part of the fun of biking.

  • I know of both men and women who have bought bikes too big for their skill level…and kept dropping them. Some just figured they didn’t have what it takes and gave up and sold their bikes or they just sat in their garages.

    Some say: Buy the bike you want to ride. Don’t waste your money on something you’re going to have to sell down the road. I disagree. The most important thing is your safety, not the money. Buy a skill-appropriate bike and then when you feel comfortable with THAT, move up to your dream bike.

    As I said previously, I began with a 250 Honda Rebel. Rode it for a year and then moved up to a Sportster 1200. I’ve been riding that for 6 years now. If I felt like forking over several thousands of dollars, I’d like to get a bigger bike. At least now, I know I have the skill set to handle a bigger bike. Seven years ago? No way. You have to be realistic and I think dealerships need to advise newbies and steer them to appropriate-sized bikes.

  • Gosh, do I ever agree with your points of view. I think ego drives sales of bikes to a silly degree, as well as peer pressure to fit in with the right riding group the person wishes to be in.

    Fortunately, many states mandate rider education courses before being licensed to ensure that at least the basics are taught before “hitting” the road. It still doesn’t mean that someone should buy too large. heavy, or fast a bike from the get-go.

    I started much like you, on a 400 Yamaha twin, but then graduated to a Beemer RS after about 18 months. However, this was in southern Cal, land of sunshine and 11 months of riding weather, so I had lots of experience already when commuting and riding the local mountains. While I was young at 25 when I did this, I was also a college graduate and had a sober chat with myself about the risk potential in heavy traffic.

    As a result, I have never had a serious “accident” in my life of 27 years and 370,000 miles.
    Mindset to me was the most important thing. I knew I loved riding, not just to be a joiner with a group of people, and this made me want to do it proficiently. This, in the days before CA enacted either mandatory helmets or training.

  • Just one more comment….and it’s a North American mindset. Motorcycles are bona fide vehicles and not just toys. Some people actually use them as their daily commuters. I concede that it’s a minority on our continent. I think the opinions people have of motorcycles would change if people acknowledged that they are vehicles and if bikers behaved as such. Want to race it? Go to a track? Zipping in and out of traffic like it’s your road? Expect to get nicked. And what is more annoying than modified, or even factory exhausts, cranking out noise at ridiculous levels. We don’t accept that from cars. Why do we accept that from bikes?
    The joy of riding to me is simply being fully engaged on this wonderful machine with all of my senses fully awake. I don’t have to fly down the road, scream off the line or come close to a front wheel stand at a red light to have fun…yes, I am older – 55. But I feel as safe as I can expect to feel on my bike and I look for respect from drivers given the respect I give them….all the while knowing everyone and everything is a danger to me. I’ll shut up now!

  • Why would someone layout big money on a new bike if they are not even sure motorcycling is for them? So the quick answer….buy used. There are so many good used bikes out there. My guess is 85-90 of bike owners baby the heck out of their machines and maintain them and clean them like crazy. Buy one of these.
    Start small. With the power newer bikes are producing I think the 250 to 500 cc range is plenty. I started on an 80 cc Suzuki, followed by a 175 Honda, 350 Kawi, 550 Honda and now have a 1000cc Concours and 1000 cc Beemer. The weight difference alone is enough to give you pause on the big bikes! Don’t take them for granted.
    It’s hard to believe bike shops will sell a newbie some sexy new crotch rocket or giant cruiser without first vetting the capabilities of the buyer. I know we’re all free to do this and that and these guys are in business to make money and move product. But that customer won’t be a repeat buyer or continuing enthusiast if his/her first experience results in injury, death or merely scares the s*** out of him/ her. You can always upgrade. If you look after your starter bike chances are you’ll sell it for what you paid for it (assuming wise purchase) or take only a small hit….which will have been totally worth it.

  • I thins some know what style bike they dream of… knee dragger, dirt bike, adventure, cruiser, long-haul bagger. I think get one of those… a little one. You will have a blast!.

    Nothing can be harder than the quest for fun… haha. What makes you think 75 horsepower is so much better than 21 horspower if you cannot control 21? The smaller bike is a total fun experience in and of itself, and no doubt much faster than your ‘cage’ can go at full throttle.

    You are not buying a sex organ, you are buying a toy, so don’t worry about how big it is, the trick is to be able to poke in and out of traffic, go slow, go fast, wiggle around when you need to…ok you got the analogy.

    Got the money? Why be a cheapskate? Buy a new one for goodness sake. The idea of being frugal when you do not need to be is sillyt This is not an investment scheme to get rich. It is a hobby that costs money. You work hard for your money so, don’t buy an old beater unless you do not have the money, then buy used. Used tires, maintenance, all that adds up on a used bike faster than a new one so they are not that much cheaper long term anyways.

    Buy new and small.. maybe get free riding lesons on the deal, ride it like you stole it, .laugh out loud, and get really good at it. Get a bigger one and do not sell your little one. That way you can scoot to the grocery store – go the long way – for a quart of milk – without warming up the cage or the beast. You can let your friends ride it. Bachelors can let their date ride it.. Much more thrilling than a greasy hamburger and a movie date and you might make a good friend.

    The hobby is about fun, not about doing everything on the cheap. Support your local dealer.

  • Bill R from Sept 2013 has the best advise on your forum. A newbie is going to fall down so.. Learn to ride on the dirt !! It’s cheaper and a whole lot safer. Make a mistake and you don’t get run over ! Then, the 1st time your street bike wiggles in the rain you know the feeling and don’t panic and wreck Never ride without boots, full face helmet, a good jacket and full finger gloves. Get an old 175 Yamaha or a 185 Suzuki. Lace you own 21″ front wheel and have some great “SAFE” times and learn how to ride.

  • Three years ago, approaching retirement, I decided I wanted to ride. Not for coolness (too old for that) and not because friends were doing it (friends too old for that and thought I was crazy.) I just really wanted to ride. I signed up for the safety course, and while waiting for that I found a V Star 1300 Tourer with 2900 miles on it online for a price that was too good to pass up. It was in Arizona – I was in Illinois. Bought it sight unseen and had it delivered – all with spouse permission/agreement. Well, the bike arrived and it was so much bigger than it was in the picture. Embarrassed, I discussed with spouse, stored the V Star and bought a GZ250 locally. I learned on and rode that for a year and finally screwed up the courage to get on the V Star. The rest is history. The V Star gets ridden every day and the GZ250 is in storage. Moral of the story? Start small, get experience, and (if you want to) then move up in size. It seems like a safe and sane way to go.

  • I bought a Harley Sportster 1200XL before I was ready for it. I took it home and said: DANG…no WAY am I getting on that beast! (It looked HUGE at the time, to me!)

    It sat in my garage for a year but in the meantime I purchased a Honda Rebel 250…and it was perfect for me to learn how to ride. After a year of practice, the transition from the Rebel to the Sportster was seamless.

    I hopped on the Sporty and drove down the road, turned around and headed back and it was a breeze. HOWEVER, women take note: it is top-heavy and if you don’t maintain your balance, it may go over. A man can better handle a Sportster b/c of his upper body strength. The good thing about the Sporty is that it IS light so you can bring it up easily when getting ready to ride…and if it starts to fall over while you’re on it, you just might be able to avoid dropping it. And if you DO drop it, well there’s usually a man around to pick it up. Why do you think God made men with muscles?? To pick up our bikes, of course. LOL. Seriously, you should learn to pick up your own bike in case you are ever truly alone.

  • When I briefly sold motorcycles, I used to ask the prospect (if a beginner) why they wanted to ride one?

    If they said, “Because all my friends do!,” or “It’s so cool,” and stuff like that, I gently reminded them that it can be a fairly hazardous hobby to have, if your mind isn’t focused on becoming a good rider, and absolutely having a burning desire to be a rider.

    In other words, I tried to get the buyer to THINK.

    That being said, I think some kind of USED lightweight dual purpose bike, no bigger than 250cc (if the person is tall enough to reach the ground easily with both feet flat), weighing no more than 300lbs, with an upright riding position (the better to allow head, neck, and shoulders to relax and to make head checks for situational awareness much easier in traffic) is the best that one can select.

    That way, it might have prior scars and scratches, and you won’t get upset when you do a low speed spill. It’s way more important that you have something checked out to be mechanically sound, and simply “learn the ropes” on something that can also be used gently in the dirt, to teach you about traction, before hitting the road (figuratively, not necessarily literally!).

    If you spend a year riding this, and still have the passion burning inside you to continue to embrace the sport, than I would wish you a hearty welcome to it.

  • I would recommend a used smaller bike 250 to 750 cc class . Practice basic skills and then get the bike you want. Baby steps, it’s important it also keeps you from getting frustrated or over whelmed.

  • Just traded my LT FOR a GS even after 47 years of riding the LT was too
    unwieldy in tight situations. That is excellent touring bike that you don’t run to the
    grocery store. My point is well expressed already if you can’t handle it don’t get on
    it. I would recommend if at all possible learning some basic motorcycling skills
    in the dirt if possible. Sure a tree could kill you, however it’s not gunning for you
    or use the I didn’t see you excuse. An all purpose lightweight what we used to call
    an Enduro bike. Dirt is much more forgiving than concrete. This would give a beginner
    the confidence to progress. You could learn balance with less fear of falling and bike
    damage. Further, you would learn slippage zones, clutching, breaking. This knowledge
    can gradually be transfered to harder surfaces with increased confidence. In today’s
    world if you don’t have that sixth sense, great propreoception and are generally known
    as klutz, I would find another rush. What ever you do watch out for black Land Rovers!

  • I think a great first bike is an old used dirt bike. you learn a lot about traction, braking, slow speed control. and the older dirt bikes(enduros) were light and fairly low to the ground before bikes got to be to specialized. a cheap beater is a great way to learn how to ride, or even if you like bikes. I own 6 street bikes from the 70s and 80s that had almost no miles on them when I bought them(the latest an 81 Suzuki gs1000 with 9000 miles) .because people buy big expensive bikes and then don’t ride them much. because they’re really not into bikes. so get a 500$ 185 and go learn.

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